The Global Tuna Alliance is dismayed and bitterly disappointed that the Special Session of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) held remotely last week, concluded with no agreement on rebuilding overfished yellowfin. Instead, rather than compromise on catches, Members decided once again to delay a decision to the next full meeting of the Commission in June.

Indian Ocean yellowfin tuna is overfished with overfishing occurring. Despite a rebuilding plan having been in place since 2016, catches have actually risen by 7.8%[1] from 2014 to 2019.

Such a situation is untenable: the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) is mandated to “ensuring, through appropriate management, the conservation and optimum utilisation of stocks” and by failing to do this, the IOTC members are putting the livelihoods of artisanal fishers at risk, and jeopardising the economies of coastal states dependent on tuna exports to markets that require responsible fisheries products. Furthermore, as tunas are a vital part of marine systems, maintaining their stock health is critical at a time of global ocean change when resilience is key.

Faced with very public demands from retailers, suppliers and processors to urgently address this situation, or potentially lose market access, the IOTC assured necessary action would be taken and agreed to hold a Special Session from 8th – 12th March 2021 to focus on rebuilding yellowfin.

Excerpt from the report of the 24th Session of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission
The Commission AGREED to a proposal from Mauritius that the IOTC issue a statement expressing its concern at the declared intention of certain European retail chains to boycott processed yellowfin tuna from the Indian Ocean, and reassuring the international community that necessary action would be taken at the appropriate time and with the appropriate scientific advice to ensure the continued sustainability of fish stocks. No draft statement or process to develop a statement was discussed by the Commission.

Two interim plans for rebuilding the Indian Ocean yellowfin tuna stock were submitted to the Special Session: one by the EU and the other by the Maldives. Both plans proposed insufficient catch reductions, with the Maldivian proposal much closer in line with our position in terms of catch reductions required. The EU plan had a much smaller catch reduction proposal with the EU fleet actually standing to receive an increase from 2019 levels.

Going into the meeting the 30 supply chain members, coordinated by the Global Tuna Alliance, implored IOTC members to ensure that the Special Session discussions enthusiastically embrace this opportunity to rebuild and effectively manage the yellowfin tuna resources in the Indian Ocean.

Ultimately, the Special Session ended with no rebuilding plan agreed, with the IOTC members only agreeing to delay the decision, again, until the next meeting of the IOTC in June. Meanwhile, the overfishing will continue and all parties will ultimately suffer.

Why did this happen? Firstly, the IOTC Scientific Committee did not, in our view, provide useful recommendations on rebuilding the overfished yellowfin stock. This Committee is mandated to “[f]ormulate and report….on recommendations concerning conservation, fisheries management and research, including consensus, majority and minority views” yet only recommended that that catches be reduced to a level at least below the CMSY estimate (403, 000 MT). To put this into perspective, at the time this advice was produced, this figure was almost identical to the reported 2014 catch (406,043mt[2]) when the rebuilding plan discussions began!

Furthermore, the Scientific Committee report actually states that the fishing mortality was 20% above the target reference point in 2017. This infers the need to implement an overall reduction of catches of 16.7% which would be significantly below the CMSY estimate. However, the Scientific Committee did not state this inferred reduction in their advice, thus ensuring the discussions were focussed on the absolute minimum catch cuts.   

Despite the attempts of certain delegations such as the Maldives, who proposed a strong rebuilding plan and offered compromises to secure agreement, and the UK who frequently tried to get the group to adopt decisions using evidence and logic, there were far too many members more interested in ensuring their share was maintained or increased.

Even a joint-proposal from EU-Maldives that would lead to catches of 401,259-401,1275mt[3], a slight reduction of 4.7% from 2014 catches, was rejected. The justifications provided ranged from calls to wait until the new stock assessment is published in December to a point-blank refusal from some IOTC members to contemplate catch limits to previously exempt fleets.

The former point would effectively mean that a new rebuilding plan wouldn’t be implemented until January 2023; allowing 21 more months of overfishing.

The latter point is significant as currently, rebuilding measures only apply to fishing vessels targeting tuna and tuna-like species in the Indian Ocean of 24 metres overall length and over, and those under 24 metres if they fish outside the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of their flag state, within the IOTC Area of Competence. Since the implementation of the rebuilding plan for yellowfin tuna, these exempt fleets have more than offset the reduction made by the fleets subject to catch cuts; moreover, as circa 40% of the catch is exempt, it simply is not possible to have a credible rebuilding plan without caps on catches.

We understand and sympathise with those countries who are looking to develop their tuna fisheries (which is enshrined in Article V.2b of the Agreement for the Establishment of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission) but at this current time, with spawning biomass of yellowfin tuna 17% lower than the target BMSY, all fleets fishing in the Indian Ocean need to compromise to rebuild the yellowfin tuna stock.

The alignment of the Maldives and the EU was a positive outcome from the meeting. The GTA will therefore advocate other Member States to engage in dialogue with the EU and Maldives and seek an improved proposal giving the catch reduction needed at this June’s IOTC meeting.

Should a resolution be adopted at the full Commission meeting in June it will apply from January 2022 which would have been the case if a resolution had been adopted at the Special Session. We consider June’s meeting to be the last realistic chance for members to deliver their mandate and manage yellowfin tuna responsibly. Accordingly, the Commission meeting will be critical for ensuring progress is made.

Finally, it should be noted that the IOTC was established within the framework of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The inability of the IOTC to agree an effective rebuilding plan for overfished yellowfin tuna is contrary to the FAO’s philosophy and goals. Accordingly, we urge the FAO to intervene in discussions over the next few months to ensure an effective rebuilding plan is agreed.

The negative consequences of IOTC members failing to agree an effective rebuilding plan cannot be overstated. In addition to the negative ecosystem impacts, the impacts on the fishers dependent on yellowfin tuna for food and livelihoods, many retailers and tuna suppliers have publicly committed to stop, reduce or pause sourcing of yellowfin tuna from the Indian Ocean if this is not delivered.

The GTA remains committed to advocating for improvements in the management of Indian Ocean yellowfin. While the outcome of the Special Session was disappointing, we will use the momentum gained to work closely with Member States to engage in dialogue with the EU and Maldives, with the aim of an effective measure achieving consensus at the 2021 full Commission meeting in June. The GTA will conduct this advocacy holistically, while individual companies will continue to use their commercial leverage and supply chain relationships to influence the Member States that they source from. While such advocacy has demonstrated some successes to date, there is much more that the GTA and other supply chain companies can do to hold the IOTC to account and call for the implementation of an effective rebuilding plan for Indian Ocean yellowfin tuna.


[1] 2014 catch 421,093mt; 2019 catch 454,138mt. Data from nominal yellowfin catches (2014-2019)

[2] This is the old figure. Nominal catch data were updated in February 2021 after the Scientific Committee met.

[3] Figure from the simulation of YFT catch limits – COM-SS4 (REV2) with default catch limits of 2,000mt allocated.

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